RICHMOND, Va.—Kyle Larson sprung out of his red No. 42 Target Chevrolet and stood on the indented driver-side window, euphorically twirling a white towel in the air as sheets of Gatorade showered down.
The victory celebration had extra flare than normal, as the 24-year-old essentially stole a win—and playoff points—from points leader Martin Truex Jr., who dominated much of the night.
After photo ops and televised interviews ran its course, Larson skipped across Victory Lane, the ground sticky wet and littered with colorful confetti from the jubilant celebration, and walked with his PR guy to the media center for one last interview.
Along the way, a track security guard stuck out his arm, giving Larson a firm handshake and a pat on the back.
“Well done, young man. Go get’em in the playoffs,” the security guard told Larson.
Maybe 100 yards away from Larson’s celebratory trail, drivers and crew members expressed a mixing-pot of emotions stimulated by NASCAR’s most frenzied night of the year. It’s playoff pressure at its realest.
The moment the race ended, Jamie McMurray’s crew pumped their collective fists skyward, relieved after securing one of three provisional playoff spots.
Drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon relaxed outside of their collective cars, knowing they’ll pack up shop remaining in contention for a title.
“Looking forward to putting the whole Roush organization on our backs and advance through some rounds,” Stenhouse said. “Definitely excited for our first Playoffs with Monster [Energy] as the title sponsor of our series.”
Others, however, can’t say the same.
Clint Bowyer, whose promising night went to ruination after of a pair of pit road violations and damage from an ambulance mishap, violently threw his helmet to the ground and shouted profane statements toward NASCAR as he stormed back to the garage.
Rookie Erik Jones, minus the helmet-chucking, had similar reactions and blew off a host of reporters, perhaps bitter he failed to capitalize with a car that had enough oomph.
Daniel Suarez, another rookie experiencing his first elimination rodeo, was nowhere to be found, in my eyes at least.
Joey Logano, meanwhile, leaned against his red and white No. 22 Red Cross / Hurricane Harvey relief Ford, in disbelief he fell one spot short of a playoff berth.
Logano’s lone win of the season was encumbered because of a tech failure, and he never recovered, mustering just two top-five finishes over the next 17 races.
“It’s a humbling sport,” Logano said. “[The encumbered win] is in the rearview mirror at this point. The sting is over. There’s nothing we can do about that at this point. … We just weren’t close enough to the lead to capitalize. Our championship season was on the line, [and] we just came up one spot short, which stinks. It hurts, it stinks.”
Fortunately for Logano, the 27-year-old has time. In an age where era’s are shifting ground — hence the recent retirements of Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and Jeff Gordon — Logano’s time is bound to come. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t excuse the urgency for winning in the now.
“We want to win, right? Like I said, the goal for the last nine years has been to win a championship, and we keep getting close,” said Logano, winner of 15 races over the past four years. “This year, we didn’t, but in the past three or four years, we’ve been in the hunt to make it happen.
“Is the pressure on me to win one? I’m only 27, man. I’ve got a long ways to go in this deal, and I like the position that I’m in.”
Logano is correct, there’s no disputing the road has a lot of track left. But the thing is, no one ever sees the end coming. If you need a testimony, just ask Dale Earnhardt Jr., who practically said the same things as Logano when he was in his late 20s.
And on Saturday night, Earnhardt Jr. was there, ironically parked next to Logano on pit road as his 18-year title quest had officially come to a close.
NASCAR’s most popular figure of all-time stood there, fielding questions from reporters and enduring perhaps the toughest elimination of them all.
“It’s disappointing, oh yeah, I’m disappointed,” said Earnhardt Jr., who finished 13th. “We had some odd luck [this year]. And when we had good luck, we didn’t capitalize. We had a long summer. We just didn’t capitalize like we should have.
“If we ran like we should have tonight, if we would’ve ran like that all year, or like we did over the last several years, we would’ve made it. But we didn’t. It’s on us. We just didn’t do the job.”
Earnhardt Jr. didn’t go down swinging on a lousy attempt, but on a hearty cut aimed for the upper deck.
During the last round of green-flag pit stops, he stayed out to take the lead, hoping for a caution so he can leverage track position. He led 13 laps — Lap 335 to 347 — waiting for a caution that never came so he didn’t have to endure a premature end.
But there stood Earnhardt, coming to grips with the fact that he’ll never win a Cup title. One-hundred or so yards away was the jubilant Larson, amped that he’s going into the 10-race playoff at full-steam ahead.
It’s contrasting emotions of The Playoffs at its realest: One driver grappling with the reality of dashed championship hopes forever, and the other heading toward a title run at full blast.